Robert Greene 1558–1592
English playwright, author, and poet.
Although Greene was one of the most widely-read and prolific of the Elizabethan authors and was called "the Homer of women" by his friend Thomas Nashe, Greene is chiefly remembered today in relation to Shakespeare: his blank-verse romantic comedies are credited with paving the way for Shakespeare by helping to rid the popular play of didacticism. Greene's Pandosto (1588) was the foundation for The Winter's Tale, and there has been much debate over the extent of Greene's authorship of parts of Henry VI. In addition to his poetry (which exists only as part of his plays), Greene wrote some three dozen romances, plays, and pamphlets, some of which championed women. His plays The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay (written around 1591) and The Scottish Historie of James the fourth, Slaine at Fodden (written around 1590) are considered his best works. Greene varied his style throughout his career, writing initially in the elaborate euphuistic mode of John Lyly, turning later to romances, and eventually adopting a more realistic manner. One of the first great university playwrights, and one of a small group of professional writers (which also included Christopher Marlowe, Nashe, and Lyly) known as the "university wits," Greene wrote largely for the public rather than for the court. Between 1588 and 1592 Greene wrote the definitive works on the ways of criminals in the so-called conny-catching genre, and these works were widely plagiarized after his death. Greene's final works were partly autobiographical and marked by repentance for the carousing done earlier in his life.
Born in Norwich, in Norfolk, England, the second child to Robert Greene, a saddler, and his wife, Mary, Greene was baptized in 1558. Little is known of his early life. He entered St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1575 on a scholarship, and received his degree in 1578. After a tour of the continent and time spent writing Mamillia, A mirrour or looking-glasse for the ladies of Englande (1580), Greene returned to the university. He received an M.A. in 1583 from Clare Hall, Cambridge. Greene married around 1585, but he abandoned his wife and newborn child in 1586 and went to London. There he became one of the earliest professional writers—that is, earning his living by writing for the public rather than by being sponsored by a benefactor. He received another degree from Oxford in 1588. Infamous for his carousing, Greene died, according to one account, in a drunken brawl in 1592.
Greene's first work, Mamillia, owes a great debt to Lyly. Besides borrowing passages from him, Greene also copied Lyly's ornate euphustic style in this exploration of love. But Greene inverted the situation found in Lyly's Euphues: in Greene's Mamillia it is the women who are betrayed. Greene's sympathetic portrayal of women endeared him to many critics. Perimedes the Blacke-Smith (1588) contains a satirical reference to Tamburlaine the Great (a famous play by Greene's rival Marlowe). Menaphon. Camillas Alarum to Slumbering Euphues (1589) is a complex pastoral romance that focuses on nature and expounds Greene's moral concerns. This romance, considered Greene's masterpiece by some, contains one of his finest poems—sung by a woman to her child—with the repeated lines "Weep not, my wanton, smile upon my knee, / When thou art old there's grief enough for thee." A Notable Discouery of Coosnage: the Art of Conny-Catching (1591) was the first of Greene's several pamphlets on conny-catching (cheating or pilfering). Critics have long debated whether Greene knew of these practices first-hand (as he claims) and to what degree they should be regarded as nonfiction. Using the common speech of his intended readers, Greene's social commentary and exposé of such underworld criminals as card sharps, pickpockets, purse snatchers, and blackmailing prostitutes was enormously successful and soon followed by sequels. In A Dispvtation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher, and a Shee Conny-Catcher (1592) a prostitute wins a wager from a cutpurse over whether "whores or theeues" cause more damage to the Commonwealth. In The Defence of Connycatching (1592) one "Cuthbert Cony-Catcher" attacks Greene for cheating. Scholars have generally agreed that Greene himself wrote the work, enjoying a joke on himself and the public.
Immensely popular for the last twelve years of his life, Greene's wrote prolifically—a situation which has led to claims that he wrote whatever he thought would sell. James Applegate has asserted that Greene boasted of his scholarship "to delude the gullible," and that he was "essentially a hack, trying to make a living from fast sales of ephemeral literature." Greene's varying styles are offered by critics as evidence that Greene chose whatever style he thought would be most popular at the time, and that he catered to the lowest level of his readers. These claims have been denied by others who assert that Greene at his best sometimes rivals Shakespeare. Morris Dickinson has written: "Without being original in structure or style Greene was individual in outlook and temper. He had a keener eye for the little things than any dramatist of his time, and he had also a better sympathy for the quick flashing moods and manifestations of human character." Charles W. Crupi has cited Greene's "rich and ambiguous treatments of human experience." Greene has also been praised for his narrative technique in his underworld tales, particularly in his quoting of criminals. By using their own words, or seeming to, Greene allows some sympathy for their condition and thereby partly implicates society for their crimes. Greene was famously vilified shortly after his death by rival poet Gabriel Harvey in Foure Letters and Certaine Sonnets and, although Greene was defended by Nashe, many of Harvey's remarks stuck with the public. Nevertheless, Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay and James the fourth are critically acclaimed as being among the best non-Shakespearean drama of their time.